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Creating a Fully Realized University: Progress on the Renaissance at Rensselaer

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Darrin Communications Center
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Saturday, June 9, 2007


Good morning. Welcome to the State of the Institute 2007. And, welcome back home to Rensselaer.

This morning, I will tell you about recent progress, changes, and events at Rensselaer, and about the next steps in the transformation of this great university. There will be time at the end for your questions.

At my inauguration as Rensselaer’s 18thpresident, almost eight years ago, I stated that greatness in a university demands that we create a “fully realized technological university.” By this, I meant that, in order to innovate, and to offer a world-class educational experience to our students, we must build on our traditional strengths, as we excel in all of our disciplines — in terms of teaching and of research. And we must lead in thinking creatively about how the disciplines intersect, connect, and inform each other. This idea also encompasses student life, recognizing that a world-class experience also must include an environment and community that nurtures, supports, and enables our young people to achieve and to excel, in all aspects of their lives.

In fact, the idea of the “fully realized technological university” underlies The Rensselaer Plan, our blueprint for institutional transformation. In the last year, we have made significant strides toward this vision. Indeed, we are now in a new era at the Institute — achieving beyond our ambitious goals in the Plan.

There is much to tell you this morning, so let me begin with the recent commencement on the Troy campus — our 201st.

On Saturday, May 19, on the Harkness Field, under, I must say, rainy skies, more than 1,470 graduates, along with their families and friends, were challenged by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman to shape the world with creativity and innovation. He told the graduates: “When the world is this flat, with this many distributed tools of innovation, what you will imagine is going to matter so much more because you now can act on your imagination, as individuals, so much faster, farther, deeper, and cheaper.” Mr. Friedman was so impressed by Rensselaer and by our students that he has written about his experience here in two recent New York Times columns.

At the ceremony, honorary degrees were awarded, as well, to:

  • Don Hewitt, a television pioneer with more than 50 years of experience at CBS News. He is best known as the creator of the groundbreaking weekly news program 60 Minutes, which debuted in 1968; and

  • Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space. She is a medical doctor, a chemical engineer, professor, and founder of two technology companies that focus on creating advanced technologies for the developing world.     

I led a discussion with the three honorands at the annual President’s Commencement Colloquy the day before our graduation ceremony. With a standing-room-only crowd, we shared a lively and provocative conversation about science, technology, innovation, globalization, the media, and ethics.

At commencement, we celebrated the impressive achievements of our graduates. Let me tell you about a few of them.

Eben Bayer is an inventor who is working to find “green solutions” to global energy challenges. His patented combination of water, flour, minerals, and mushroom spores could replace conventional insulation materials. As the son of a successful Vermont farmer — and as a dual major in mechanical engineering and product design and innovation — Eben used his knowledge of the Earth and fungal growth to develop a novel method of bonding insulating minerals. His innovative idea was recognized when he won our annual Change the World Challenge last year. Eben also was named a finalist in the prestigious Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize competition this year. He has joined with fellow graduate Gavin McIntyre to form a company, called Greensulate, to commercialize the technology. 

Zane Van Dusen is a musician who is creating an innovative device called an “adaptive-use musical instrument,” which allows all people, regardless of physical mobility, to experience the joy of making music. As a student in our electronic media, arts, and communications program, he has been working with an interdisciplinary team led by Professor Pauline Oliveros, a world-renowned musician, to design a computer interface which tracks the movement of a user’s hand, to allow the user to produce electronic sounds, and to compose music on a virtual keyboard, in both solo and ensemble settings. The device provides a much-needed outlet for creative expression for people with extremely limited mobility, particularly those with cerebral palsy.

Some of you know the story of this past year’s Men’s Ice Hockey Captain Kirk McDonald, who took the challenge of a serious illness and used it as an opportunity to help others. He is a cancer survivor who had to miss an entire hockey season — and his academic classes — for his lengthy treatment and recovery. Yet, Kirk never lost sight of wanting to do for others. He has helped to raise tens of thousands of dollars for cancer research and awareness, and he has served as a cancer spokesman here, and at other local colleges. Kirk has received numerous awards, including the Rensselaer Alumni Association Community Service Award. He also has been named a Coca-Cola Community All-American, a Lowe’s Senior CLASS All-American, the U.S. College Hockey Online Unsung Hero, and a finalist for the national Hockey Humanitarian Award. He has been honored, as well, with the Livingston W. Houston Citizenship Award, given to a Rensselaer graduating senior who is considered the “First Citizen of the College” — an individual who ranks high in character, leadership, scholarship, and athletic ability. Kirk will continue to pursue his career in professional hockey, having already started with the Albany River Rats in April of this year. 

Last Saturday, we held commencement exercises for Rensselaer at Hartford. More than 260 graduates received advanced degrees there across a range of technological fields. Among the members of the outstanding Rensselaer at Hartford Class of 2007 are 27 students who received a second advanced degree from the Institute.

As our graduates move on, the Class of 2011 arrives, with approximately 1,300 new students. We had a record number of applications this year — more than 10,100, which is a nearly 50 percent increase over the previous year, and a growth of 82 percent over the last two years.

The incoming class is impressive, with the average SAT score up almost 20 points from the previous year, and more than 65 percent of the students coming from the top 10 percent of their high school classes. This high-achieving group also includes a significant increase in the number of women — nearly one-third of the class, up 12 percent from last year, as well as an increase in the number of underrepresented minorities.

We also continue to attract talented and promising graduate students. As of this date, 257 are confirmed to attend in the fall. Of those 257 students, 154 are confirmed as Ph.D. students.

Before I continue, I would like to introduce to you three campus leaders who have joined us in the last year.

  • Mr. Donald Fry has joined us as Vice President for Institute Advancement. He is responsible for the oversight of advancement strategy, services, and infrastructure; alumni relations; and development, including the Rensselaer Annual Fund, and individual, corporate, foundation, and international advancement. Before coming to Rensselaer last August, he served as vice president for development and advancement at Colorado State University. Prior to that, he spent several years at Purdue University, where he served in a variety of positions, including as director of leadership gifts and campaign operations, and director of advancement for the College of Engineering.
  • Mr. William Walker joined us in February as the Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations. Mr. Walker comes to us from Dartmouth College, where he served as vice president for public affairs. He is leading this new Institute portfolio, which was created to advance public understanding of, and advocacy for, Rensselaer and to ensure robust communication with all of our constituencies. Mr. Walker is a leader in his field, having served for six years on the Board of Trustees of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), and as chair of CASE’s Commission on Communications and Marketing for four years.
  • Mr. James Nondorf, our new Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions, joined us last summer. A graduate of Yale University, he worked in student life and admissions at Yale. He holds a Master’s of Liberal Arts in Ethics from Valparaiso University. He also has served as president of Cambridge Technology Group.

  • In January, Dr. Wei Zhao joined us as Dean of the School of Science. He previously was senior associate vice president for research at Texas A&M, where he also was a professor of computer science. Dr. Zhao worked on the long-term strategic plan at Texas A&M, supervised the Office of Sponsored Research and the Office of Compliance, directed the Institute of Telecommunication and Information Technology, and led the campuswide homeland security initiative, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for more than $17 million. 

No State of the Institute — or Reunion weekend — would be complete without Isadore “Izzy” Warshaw, who is 105.5 years young. Izzy is a remarkable individual, and an enthusiastic supporter of Rensselaer. Izzy, please stand so that we all may applaud you.

I also want to acknowledge James Ferris from the Class of 1970. I hope you had the opportunity to hear Dr. Ferris speak yesterday afternoon — on the challenges, such as climate change, associated with key global infrastructure markets, such as energy and water. Dr. Ferris is the retired Director, President  & Chief Executive Officer, of the Industrial & Federal Government Groups, of CH2M HILL Companies Ltd., one of the world's largest employee-owned, privately-held engineering, construction, and major project management firms. He previously served on the faculty of Rensselaer, and in 1991, was the recipient of the RAA Fellows Award.

Now, let me continue to highlight the wonderful things that are happening at Rensselaer. There are many reasons we are attracting high-achieving prospective students in record numbers. For example, being named one of the “New Ivies” by Kaplan/Newsweek last year has raised our profile significantly on a national level. This designation puts us in a select group of colleges with first-rate academic programs that are attracting more of the top students, making us competitive with Ivy League schools.

U.S. News & World Report ranks Rensselaer 42nd among the nation’s top universities, up a place from last year (and up eight places since we began our work to raise Rensselaer’s national standing), and 24th in the “Best Values” among national universities, up from 27th last year.

Our Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond program, which greets first-year students with a series of welcoming events, team-building adventures, and festivities, was awarded an “Excellence Gold Award” by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Now in its seventh year, the program is sponsored by the Office of the First-Year Experience. This program offers a comprehensive array of resources and initiatives for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as for parents and families, which begin before students arrive on campus, and continue well beyond their first year. In addition to Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond, the First-Year Experience sponsors Family Weekend, Campus Community Service Days, the Information and Personal Assistance Center, and the Community Advocate Program, as well as many other community action initiatives, programs, and publications designed to help students and families navigate Rensselaer.

The First-Year Experience creates the appropriate framework to help students to excel and to succeed. For instance, offerings include the Tuesday Night Toolbox student success series, residence hall programming, and various academic student support initiatives led by the Dean, and facilitated by faculty, staff, and upperclass students.

Here with us today is Lou Bellardo, from the Class of 1967, who endowed the first gift to support the Office of the First-Year Experience.  

It is because of programs such as this that our freshmen-to-sophomore retention rate has reached an all-time high of 94 percent.

Our reputation for leading-edge teaching and world-class research attracted a historic gift last year from the Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education, or PACE. This is the largest in-kind gift in Institute history, with a value of approximately $514 million. PACE is a joint philanthropic initiative of General Motors, EDS, Sun Microsystems, and UGS Corporation, which supports key academic institutions worldwide with computer-based design tools. PACE is providing us with the latest computer-assisted design and prototyping software used in industry, and at leading R&D centers like the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Our freshmen had this software pre-loaded on their new laptop computers last fall, and faculty members continue to incorporate it into the core engineering curriculum.

The software is not only for engineering students, however. There is an entire suite of products that, in the coming years, can be used in research in the life sciences, in architecture, in the arts, and in management curricula as well. One of the products, called Teamcenter, enables cross-platform collaboration among PACE partner universities worldwide. This opens up possibilities for real-world interactions for our students with student teams around the globe.

Last month we gave a sneak preview of our new Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, or CCNI, one of the world’s most powerful university-based supercomputing centers. CCNI is the result of a $100 million partnership among Rensselaer, IBM, and New York state. It is located at the Rensselaer Technology Park, with a fiber network connection to the campus. The center is designed to continue advancing semiconductor technology to the nanoscale level, while also supporting nanoscale research and technological innovation in the fields of energy, biotechnology, the arts, medicine, and other disciplines within science and engineering.

CCNI’s computational power is provided by a heterogeneous environment with a mix of high-end processors. At the heart of the facility is an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer that will operate at more than 80 teraflops (80 trillion floating point operations per second). When fully operational, all of the components associated with the center will generate more than 100 teraflops of computing power. That amounts to about 15,000 calculations each second for every person in the world.

Since IBM is a key partner in this exciting venture, I would like especially to thank Nicholas Donofrio, Class of 1967, a Rensselaer Trustee and Executive Vice President, Innovation and Technology, for IBM. Another IBM executive and Rensselaer alumnus, who was the key driver in bringing the CCNI to fruition, is Dr. John E. Kelly III, who received his Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from Rensselaer in 1978.

Our world-class Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies has been up and running for more than two and a half years. It is enabling research at the intersection of engineering, the physical and computational sciences with the life sciences.

Another exciting part of the transformation of Rensselaer is the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC. This leading-edge facility will open in the fall of 2008 with a multi-performance celebration that will occur over several days. The center will house a concert hall, a theater, two black-box studios, a rehearsal and dance studio, four artists-in-residence studios, and several post-production studio spaces.

As construction continues, EMPAC programming continues to enliven — and enlighten — the Troy campus, stretching our minds and our imaginations, and subverting our expectations of the intersection of art, media, and technology. For example, a performance by the New York City-based dance company Troika Ranch used digital media and computer technology to create a specific process of interaction between live performers and digital media. In performance, movement sensing devices are coupled with a programming environment, with special emphasis on real-time signal-processing of digital video. It is a long way from Swan Lake.

EMPAC is a research platform, as well, for leading-edge, multi-disciplinary work in visualization, animation, simulation, and acoustics. It will feature unique high-end technology, specialized physical spaces, and sophisticated video and audio equipment.

An example of work that EMPAC will support is that of Dr. Suvranu De, assistant professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering. He leads a team that is combining the sense of touch with 3-D computer models of organs to create a new approach to training surgeons — a virtual simulator that allows surgeons to touch, feel, and manipulate computer-generated 3-D tissues and organs. Dr. De and his team now are using that expertise in computer haptics (sense of touch) and virtual environments to develop the foundations for a robust and reliable shared virtual environment, in which interactive haptic feedback is added to existing visual and auditory feedback. The project is developing methods to overcome current network limitations, and studying how humans use the ability to communicate touch over long distances when interacting with other humans or machines.

EMPAC will be a unique laboratory for extending this type of work to combined virtual and artificial physical environments.

Another example of EMPAC-related education and research comes from the Minds and Machines Program. This program offers students the resources to investigate scientifically the nature of cognition, and to apply this knowledge to technological application and innovation. Students meet biweekly to interact with fellow students and faculty, researchers with recent doctoral degrees, and graduate students from the Cognitive Science department.

Facilities include the CogWorks Laboratory, where research is performed on the interplay of human cognition, perception, and action in routine interactive behavior (such as programming a VCR), the Rensselaer Artificial Intelligence and Reasoning (R.A.I.R) Laboratory, where intelligent virtual agents and robots are developed, and the Visually Guided Action Laboratory, where the interplay between vision and action (such as avoiding a collision with a moving object) is investigated through the use of the Virtual Reality Room. These investigations will be enhanced, as well, by the capabilities of EMPAC.

As we continue to build a fully realized university, we also are giving special attention to the important role of athletics in our students’ lives. More than 5,000 of our students take part in varsity and club sports, as well as intramural and recreational sports. Since it is our intent to develop the mind, body, and spirit — to develop the whole person — our students must have the best in modern and expanded athletic facilities.

Our plan for the new East Campus Athletic Village is a key part of supporting our students’ development, and a significant step in the physical transformation of the Troy campus. The athletic village will include a 5,000-7,500-seat stadium for football and other field sports, a gymnasium with 2,000 seats and multi-purpose space, a natatorium, and a field house for indoor track and field and other indoor sports. Phase 1 of the project — which includes the stadium the gymnasium, and updated playing fields — will begin this summer, and will be completed by September 2009, in time for the first home football game of that season. In addition, we plan to expand the Houston Field House to accommodate offices for men’s and women’s ice hockey, and to provide additional programmable space.

All of this is part of The Undergraduate Plan, which gives new emphasis to that part of The Rensselaer Plan aimed at transforming the undergraduate experience. The Undergraduate Plan calls for challenging, engaging, and highly relevant academic programs that combine theory with experiential learning.

In a “flattening world,” we must educate our young people across an innovation continuum — or what we call an entrepreneurial continuum — from grounding in basic concepts, to immersion in deep, open-ended problems in research and design, to the exploitation of new ideas through the incubation and venture funding of both new and existing enterprises.

We must educate students to become technologically and culturally sophisticated individuals, who can understand and solve complex problems, individuals with multicultural understanding who can operate in a global context, and individuals with intellectual agility who can see connections between disciplines and among sectors, across a broad intellectual milieu.

Therefore, one goal is to increase research participation to 80 percent of undergraduates over the next five years. Research provides undergraduates with the kind of open-ended problem-solving so important in industry, and especially in preparation for graduate school. Currently, about 30 percent of our undergraduates participate directly in research activities.

Another goal is to phase in the opportunity for every undergraduate student to study abroad, thereby helping to prepare our students to be global leaders. The opportunities would include international co-op and internship experiences, semesters abroad in other universities, research opportunities, and summer overseas semesters led by Rensselaer faculty. For example, the School of Engineering is launching a new international program with the goal eventually to provide every Rensselaer undergraduate engineering student the opportunity to study abroad during the junior year.  

Our academic programs are expanding as well. An innovative undergraduate degree program in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences was approved by New York state last month and will begin this fall. We also added a Bachelor of Science degree in Design, Innovation, and Society, which will prepare students to design new products, services, and media, while considering the societal needs and environmental concerns of the 21st century. Another new Bachelor of Science degree is in Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology.

For our graduate students, the Ph.D. in Electronic Arts recently received approval by New York State. We also have new Ph.D. programs in Biophysics and Biochemistry, in Architectural Sciences, and in Cognitive Science.  

This coming fall we will launch a joint program with Albany Law School, leading to an M.S. in the Commercialization of Technology from the Lally School, and an M.S. in Legal Studies from Albany Law.    

Our unprecedented faculty hiring, under the Rensselaer Plan, has resulted in the seeding of new ideas, new academic offerings, and new research thrusts. In the last seven years, we have hired 180 new faculty across all schools and fields at Rensselaer — 73 into entirely new positions. This has lowered the student-faculty ratio from 17:1 to 14:1 — and for undergraduate students, down to nearly 11:1. This has allowed us to strengthen traditional disciplines and to branch into new arenas.

Faculty renewal will continue, with 45 hires planned for fiscal year 2008. Eleven of those will be appointed under our constellation program, through which we are adding multidisciplinary teams of senior faculty, junior faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates in particular research fields. The constellation program builds on our traditional core strengths in microelectronics and microsystems, advanced materials, nanotechnology, and advanced scientific computation, modeling, and simulation, to create critical mass groupings of faculty in exciting new areas. Overall, we have five signature research thrusts — in Biotechnology and the Life Sciences, Computation and Information Technology, Nanotechnology, Energy and the Environment, and Media and the Arts. Together, these research thrusts both draw from and interlink faculty from essentially all fields represented at Rensselaer. 

Our talented faculty members are educational leaders, and they conduct leading-edge and innovative research in all of our five schools. They are garnering research awards and recognition as never before. For example, we have been privileged to have more than 40 winners of the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) — an impressive achievement for any university, and especially for an institution of our size. The award is given to faculty members at the beginning of their academic careers and is one of NSF’s most competitive awards.

There are other faculty achievements of note. Professor Burt Swersey, a lecturer in Rensselaer’s department of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering, has been awarded the 2007 Olympus Lifetime of Educational Innovation Award for his dedication to innovative thinking, and his commitment to students and their learning. 

Last November, Dr. Gwo-Ching Wang, department chair and professor of physics, joined me in being elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dr. Tarek Abdoun, Associate Director of our Geotechnical Centrifuge Research Center, conducts research in civil engineering that is helping to keep us safer. He led a team that constructed a model to simulate the levee structure of the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans, amid the conditions of Hurricane Katrina. They used Rensselaer’s 150 g-ton centrifuge, one of only four in the United States, which enables researchers to test large structures under extreme conditions, using scale models. The team found that the levee may have slid on a layer of weak clay just beneath the peat that underlies the earthen structure. Dr. Abdoun presented the findings to the American Society of Civil Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences.

In his earthquake research, Dr. Abdoun has developed a wireless sensor that can be lowered into the ground, taking real-time ground movement measurements near highways. The sensor is being used in a project with California’s state transit agency. Eventually, there will be hundreds of thousands of these sensors in the ground as well as on buildings, bridges, and pipe structures — enabling the collection of real-time data during an earthquake.   

In another example of outstanding faculty research, Dr. Chunyu Wang, who is based in the biotech center, is leading a team of researchers who are challenging current thinking on the causes and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. They are offering a new hypothesis that could be the key to preventing this form of dementia. The researchers have found that a specific imbalance between two peptides — Aβ42 and Aβ40 — may be the cause of the fatal neurological disease that affects more than 5 million people in the United States. Dr. Wang expects that this imbalance could be the main factor in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. If correct, the addition of Aβ40 may stop the disease’s development. The research has been published in the June edition of the Journal of Molecular Biology

The Rensselaer Plan sets a goal of positioning the Institute as a technological research university with “global reach and global impact.” We extended our global reach in March when I led a delegation to Europe, where we met and made connections with leading representatives from government, industry, and higher education, and I delivered speeches in London, Paris, and Geneva, where we launched a new alumni chapter. A key objective of this trip — and of our other international trips — was to foster partnerships and collaborations with some of Europe’s leading academic, research, and policy institutions in areas of common interest. For example, we signed a letter of agreement with the University of London — Birkbeck College, to promote educational and research cooperation, including student and faculty exchanges and development of collaborative research projects, among other activities. We also received commitments for student and faculty exchange programs with Ecole Polytechnique (the leading technological university in France), CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), and Imperial College of the University of London. Such connections are vital to our mission of becoming a global university, and to helping our students become sophisticated global citizens and global leaders. 

Our goals are ambitious, we have achieved much, and there still is much left to be done. Our progress constitutes the building blocks which will enable further progress. But let me tell you — our work has been “against the wind.”  But, we pushed forward nevertheless — by husbanding our resources, by focusing our efforts, and by seeking new sources of support.

As you may know, at Rensselaer and other private colleges and universities, the cost of educating a student is much higher than the tuition we receive. We get a lot done with very modest resources, and it is a testament to the Rensselaer community, to those who do the work of the university each day with creativity and with heart, for the students who are our raison d’être.

The fact remains that, although we have made great strides across the board, our endowment is not at the level of our peer and aspirant group of schools, such as Cornell, Princeton, and Georgia Tech; it is not at a level our reputation demands; not at a level that will provide a sustainable future.

That is why we launched the Renaissance at Rensselaer campaign — the largest capital campaign in our history, and we intend to reach its ambitious $1.4 billion goal. To date, we have raised $1.23 billion. We also intend to grow the Rensselaer endowment to $1 billion, so that in the 21st century and beyond, we will have the resources to provide for the current and future students the educational experience they deserve.

We are doing what we must to compete with the best universities for the best faculty and students, and for important research awards.

The outcomes of our efforts during the last eight years at Rensselaer illustrate that we are well on our way to achieving this goal. We will move forward with confidence, with vision, and with the firm conviction that we will change the world, as Rensselaer people have in the past.

I am an optimist by nature. This puts me in the right place in being here, because optimism, and hope, lie at the very foundation of Rensselaer. You are the beneficiaries — and the bearers — of its legacy, from its beginnings to today. I look forward to the journey ahead with you. The best is yet to come.

Thank you again for coming this weekend. I now will be happy to entertain questions.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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